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SCIENCE MUSEUM CHECKS COLLECTION IN WAKE OF THEFTS

Stunned by the theft of seven valuable African artifacts, the Buffalo Museum of Science has begun combing its entire collection of 102,000 objects to see if others are missing.

As of Thursday, a random check of the museum's computer database had revealed no additional pilferage, said Kevin Smith, associate curator of anthropology.

But a more thorough search will be necessary, he conceded.

"Once something like this happens, you have to assume the security of the entire collection has been compromised," noted Michael J. Gramly, the museum's former curator of anthropology. "They will have to lock down and do an inventory. It's a nightmare."

Meanwhile, museum President Michael J. Smith said a cash reward will be posted for information leading to the recovery of the five finely carved ivory tusks, carved wooden stool and carved wooden mask.

Museum officials, who revised their estimate of the artifacts' value to between $75,000 and $100,000, believe the heist was an inside job carried out with the help of a current or former employee. Special keys are needed to open the anthropology storeroom, which bore no signs of forced entry.

The case is being investigated by Buffalo police and the FBI, which will post photographs of the objects on its Internet Web page. Stealing art is a federal offense.

The carved tusks and wooden pieces disappeared from a locked fourth-floor storeroom between Dec. 23 and Jan. 20, while Kevin Smith was away performing scholarly research. On returning, he discovered the room had been entered. A weeklong search revealed the theft.

"My gut feeling is that the seven African artifacts were the only things taken," he said. "After eight years here, I have a sense of what should be on shelves, and where."

The curatorial knowledge is buttressed by computer records of each item's description, location and movement through the vast collection area.

"We've been pulling up storage location numbers at random to make sure what should be there is there," Smith said.

Museum officials believe the thief or thieves targeted the lost pieces, which most likely are destined to be sold on the art black market.

At the FBI, which investigates all cultural robberies, "there is a statutory presumption that these things will go interstate," said spokesman Paul Moskal.

Posting the pictures on the agency's Internet home page, which receives about 1 million "hits" a day, improves the odds that the items will turn up sooner or later, he said.

The museum has alerted other museums, art collectors and dealers around the world to be on the lookout for the pilfered artifacts.

The theft points up the need to improve security at Buffalo museums and galleries whose collections are too valuable to insure, Michael Smith said.

"This points up a challenge all of us face. These are tremendous collections, and we've got to protect them," he said.

A full inventory of the Science Museum storage areas will be under way soon, Kevin Smith added. "Obviously, we're going to have to do a bit more -- be thorough."

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